Exploring Social and Political Issues through Visual Arts

Dr. Ofra Arieli Backenroth

“Art is the most effective mode of communications that exists.” John Dewey

Due to their expressive nature and the possibility of multiple interpretations, works of art allow for conversation from a variety of points of view, experiences and different ways of learning. Contemporary artists often address social, religious, political and cultural issues, providing a framework for exploring challenging and difficult subjects.

At the Davidson School of JTS, we offer a class dedicated to the integration of the arts into Jewish education, titled “The Arts and Culture as a Window to Israeli Society.” Participants explore different forms of art and their significance in teaching various social topics that are crucial for understanding Israeli society. The course strives to educate future teachers on the importance of the arts in education and examines ways to help their students make deeper connections through studying art. The leading question is, How can works of arts be placed in the center of the curriculum to become a conduit for issue-based education about Israel and its social and political issues?

In issues-based education, participants strive for an understanding of multiple meanings within an artwork. Building an art-centered curriculum focused on current social issues in Israeli society expands pre-service teachers’ expectations of the functions of art in the classroom and allows them to create safe space for conversations about difficult topics and issues. In discussing challenging contemporary artworks that attract their interest, students learn to rethink their assumptions about art and consequently about the issues presented in the work.

Often, sections of artworks are presented in a way that allows students to form hypotheses about their meaning before seeing the whole. This gives students a chance to focus on describing what they see instead of jumping to conclusions too fast. At other times, two visuals are presented to allow students to compare and contrast the works of art, prompting conversations about a given issue. In some instances, students are exposed to a few works of art; they have to choose those that best fit the topic and explain their selection.

Indeed, one of the main goals of the course is to teach students how to look at a work of art, to dissect it into details, describe it and only then explore its meaning and its relevance to the topic. Researchers teach us that learning with and through the arts encourages imaginative, metaphoric, and creative thinking as well as cultural awareness. The visuals chosen for the course are all responses to social and political issues, and consequently they challenge the students to interact with both the art and the message in order to create multidisciplinary units of learning.

Not all artworks are suitable for this purpose. The works presented during the course are carefully chosen as aids for provoking difficult conversations about political issues. The visuals selected are relevant to universal issues and were not all created specifically in the Israeli context. They are not necessarily known works of art by famous artists; however, they are all recently produced, tightly connected to the topic, and explicit but not simplistic in their treatment. Additionally, the works of art allow for multiple responses and ambiguities and contain enough details to encourage conversation and emotional empathy.

For example, in a lesson dedicated to uprooting and resettlement, students look at a slide presentation of six visuals that deal with the topic of emigration and immigration. The issue of refugees is of course extremely pressing worldwide as well as in Israel. Students are asked to choose two images that most resonate with their own experience or thinking about the topic and, in a follow-up session, they look for appropriate texts that connect with the visuals.

One student chose to focus on the first image. “The painting of the books and suitcases are dark, uninviting. The books are empty, which is unusual. Maybe to show us there is nothing to remember or maybe that the traveler will fill the books in the future. The pile of suitcases and books give the feeling they were just dropped off a few minutes ago, they are still in transit, or about to leave. Anyone who has moved knows the one thing you wish you could take with you is your book collection, but that is not possible many times. Maybe that is why the books are on the floor; they are not going with the traveler.”

The second visual the student chose was Where to. “It is so literal it is painful. A father who, by the look on his face, seems to have lost everything, is wandering with three young children. It is obvious by the name of the piece that he doesn’t know where to go; he probably lost his home during the war and is now alone, maybe his wife died? The child seems as though he is asking his father a question, one that the father doesn’t want to answer. The other child is sitting on his shoulder looking distressed, as if he is crying or in pain. The third boy is walking behind them, looking down in anguish. The whole scene is so dramatic, full of the deepest sadness imaginable. The colors here are brighter, but the dead tree in the background gives a sense this is the desert, with no prospect of life nearby.”

The student proceeded to compare the two paintings. “They are similar in the sense they are both dealing with leaving home. The one with the suit- cases implies there was time to pack; the traveler has decided what to take. In the other painting, they are going aimlessly, taking nothing with them. They are lost in the world. In the first painting, we see only still objects; they can only hint at what their owner feels and thinks. The other has four characters that are revealing their emotions very clearly.”

Another student chose to focus on the group of sculptures and highlighted their impact. “The image is so powerful. Who are these faceless, body-less travelers? My gut tells me they are survivors of the Holocaust, marching out of the camps, trying to get to Palestine/Israel. The way the coats have been frozen in time evokes a sense of perpetual movement. Notice the coat on the far right. It is as if you can see the would-be person bending his knee as he lifts his leg to take another step. Yet, we do not know really where they are going to, only that they are on the move. Is that us, the Jewish people, for centuries on the move from place to place?”

One student explained that Raeda Saadeh’s photorealistic combination of a person and an imaginative object is the most striking and memorable visual. “The single woman with the concrete block trapping her leg, appeared to be amputated, pulled me to wonder about the conditions of the piece’s subject. It shook me. The photo plays upon the conventions of ‘modeling’ gesture but by distorting them ever so slightly makes the image something deeply abject and unsettling. In many ways, this piece recalled to me some of the work of Cindy Sherman, who also experiments with the themes of gender and subject-hood. The unrelenting bleakness of the subject’s expression, coupled with the dramatic lighting and curiously open door (which begs the viewer to wonder what beckons beyond) continues to linger in my mind, enshrouded in dark mystery.”

In the following session the students read their chosen texts connected with the topic of the visuals. The first text that they chose were the opening verses from the Bible portion Lekh lekha (Genesis 12:1-2) in which Abraham was commanded to leave his home. The journey of Abraham, the father of both the Jewish and Muslim worlds, was selected at the suggestion of one student as a prototype to invoke dialogue about what uprooting means to different societies. What would it have felt like for Abraham to be uprooted from his home and go to a place unknown? How is the experience of Jewish and Palestinians similar or different? What new understandings of each other might we come to in sharing stories in this way?

The visuals in this session served as a powerful entry point and as emotional starting points for the students not only to observe and interpret art but also to move from the visual to the texts and to discussion about current social and political issues. The study of the social and political contexts of art production is important in understanding the arts in relation to history and culture. Through this experience the students learn not only how to describe and analyze art but also that art has embedded meaning, that artists take a stand about real-life events, and that art expresses a point of view. With the facilitation of an instructor, the students have the ability to explore the artist’s point of view, deepen their knowledge about the topic, and formulate their own point of view about difficult issues.

Three Coats and a Travel Trunk by Ofra Zimbalista Self-Portrait by Raeda Saadeh Books and Luggage by Meir Pichadze
Ofra Zimbalista, Three Coats and a Travel Trunk, 2000 Raeda Saadeh, Self-Portrait, 2003 Meir Pichhadze, Books and Luggage
Return to the issue home page:
HaYidion Art and Aesthetics Summer 2016
Art and Aesthetics
Summer 2016